The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Opinion

September 30, 2010

Mine safety

— We believe those at the various federal and state agencies who are in charge of mine safety are indeed serious about their jobs.

We believe they grieved along with the rest of us and were deeply saddened when 29 coal miners lost their lives in the April explosion at Upper Big Branch.

But we simply cannot understand the process by which these agencies function.

Earlier this week, it was reported that federal regulators have implemented new measures for identifying the nation’s most dangerous mines. U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said these measures will replace a “badly broken” process.

And this from Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Joe Main: “We have known for some time that the current system is broken and needs to be fixed.”

Our incredulity is not limited to MSHA. Nine days after the UBB tragedy, Gov. Joe Manchin issued an executive order that tightened state requirements for mine operators to control explosive coal dust in underground mines. He said inspectors would “take immediate steps to ensure compliance with the law.”

But five months after the order was issued, the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training hadn’t cited a single mine for violating the new rock-dusting standards because state inspectors hadn’t actually taken any samples of underground mine dust.

Ron Wooten, director of the state agency, defended the lag since Manchin’s order, noting it took more than two years to create additional mine rescue teams mandated after the Sago and Aracoma tragedies in 2006.

“We have been doing everything we can,” he said.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Secretary Solis and congressional Democrats seemed to place the blame for the “badly broken” screening process on the Bush administration.

If that’s the case, where were the safety advocates? Where was the congressional oversight?

We know government often moves slowly. But we’re talking about people’s lives here. Why does it take a tragedy to reveal underlying problems?

If mine safety agencies are to be relevant in the future, they must do a better job. And it’s up to the taxpayers who fund them to demand just that.

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